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Fond Memories of Vagina: Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow

A person like me has to be careful when he goes to the bookstore. He can’t just slop books into his cart and glide over to the register, he has to do his research. Because it is very easy to get burned. Like the time I borrowed Phillip Roth’s The Humbling from the library. I spent the next few weeks making retching noises and trying to get through erotic descriptions that were so terrible they were on the short list for the 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, sex scenes that made me want to buy a tube of lipstick, scrawl IT ALL MEANS NOTHING on the bathroom mirror, and wander the streets in silent agony. This is my characteristic response to a certain type of book I’ve run into many times over the years, a book which I refer to as Fond Memories of Vagina. The plot is always the same: “I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy. I shall attain some. I am reinvigorated! Thanks, pussy!” This bores me and makes my entire lower half numb.

Fond Memories of Vagina is a book that has been written over and over again. A few months ago I picked up Fury by Salman Rushdie at a thrift store. I knew this was Fond Memories of Vagina on the first page. All of the descriptions of people are based on a specious understanding of contemporary pop culture: It’s written in the way older male authors try to imitate youth culture (GAWWWWD Tom Wolfe), shoehorning in references to THE LATEST TECHNOLOGIES which make them seem even more clueless than ever. (Your main character has a MYSPACE account? What is this, the War of 1812?)

The main characters of these books are all the same guy. He spends three hundred pages aggrandizing or belittling himself, but is ultimately the only fit judge of his self-worth and life. He is usually embattled, defending himself against the intrusion of silly, feminine interpretations of his behavior, lest he start making decisions based on the lives and feelings of others rather than his own childish needs. He blames everyone else for his problems, he is able to take women’s measurements on sight with eerie precision, but he’s not very good at sex. The decline of his libido is always a metaphor for death. ALWAYS. You get the picture.

And who are these women? Take your pick from the treasure trove of stock characters that the male sexual fantasy complex has fed us. There are high-powered, but emotionally brittle female psychiatrists, tragic young ingenues, naive female poets, the occasional innocent farm girl — her cow milking a not too subtle metaphor for what the protagonist wants her to do to his well-read, internationally acclaimed boner — with the smell of tulips about her. Let me ask you something, Older Male Authors of a Certain Generation: Have you ever been near a cow?

Both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Updike went underage, which is revolting. They were largely shielded from criticism by the male apologists of high art, who reject critical interpretations of literature that expect the writer to take his head out of his own ass once in a while and decide against loving descriptions of pedophilia. In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the ninety-year-old protagonist begins the book by ordering a young virgin on the telephone. Updike’s character in Toward the End of Time begins molesting a young girl for money. There seems to be a suspension of sexual morality in these books, built as they are on a rapidly deflating, and therefore desperately adhered to, sense that they are chasing HIGHER IDEALS. These ideals include the assumption that Fond Memories of Vagina is a book that needs to be written. Otherwise, we might forget that older men lust after younger women.

Let us call these books what they are: high-minded pornography. They are a way for Older Men of a Certain Generation to read a book about how sexy they are, how normal their neurotic tendencies are, and how easy it is to get young women to have sex with them. But they should not be labeled “universal,” as literature so often is. I am NOT talking about censorship. I am talking about the fact that these books won’t appeal to more than half of the population, and yet are marketed as if they written for everyone. If I decided to write a book about all the sex I wish I was having, I would have the sense to name it McKinley from “Wet Hot American Summer” Sends Garland a Sext or The Night Shia LaBeouf Didn’t Ruin It By Talking, not The Silent Quickening of Thomas Dupree. That would be misleading.

Wasn’t I supposed to be reviewing a book? Yes, The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis. The only book I’ve read of Amis’ is Time’s Arrow which I just adore. I haven’t read his most famous work, Money, because it was always checked out or missing from the library. The works of Martin Amis are the third most shoplifted books after The Virgin Suicides and The Bible. This man’s books are important to people.

The protagonist of The Pregnant Widow is a young writer in Italy named Keith Nearing, living with his girlfriend and her sexilicious friend. Amis sets as his task the summation of male-female relationships since the feminist revolution. Because feminism is something that is DONE to the main character, something that frustrates and traumatizes him, and leaves women flailing about for meaning in their lives. He makes IMPORTANT REVELATIONS:

The second item of business on the revolutionary manifesto ran as follows: Women , also, have carnal appetites.

Immemorially true, and now of course inalienably obvious. But it took a while for this proposition to be absorbed. In the no-sex-before-marriage community, the doctrine was that good girls didn’t do it for lust – and bad girls didn’t do it for lust either (they did it for fleeting leverage or for simple gain, or out of a soiled and cobbwebbed lunacy). And some of the young ones themselves never quite came to sober terms with it, with female lust.

I could shake any comment thread on the Beatdown about slut-shaming and get better writing than that. His prose is bloated and redundant, and is hard to remember, even while you are reading. But Amis is bringing something special to the table. He can cure you of the self-doubt and existential uncertainty of modern life, ladies. With his schwanz. Keith spends the entire novel whining that Scheherazade, a friend of his girlfriend, Lily, won’t bang him. THE NAMES, THEY ARE SYMBOLIC. He muses about sex, literature, women’s bodies, and lets hifalutin’, trite dialogue fall out of his empty, yapping head. In between these high points, Amis treats us to uninspired revelations coupled with free floating bits of trivia, delivered in a style meant to convey weight and gravitas, wrapped in zany, sexually transgressive antics. Which makes fully a third of this book legally a Chuck Palahniuk novel.

This passage is fairly symptomatic of these DEEP THOUGHTS:

Anticipation, looking forward, not as a passive state, but as the busiest and brightest of activities: that was youth. And the waiting taught him something literary too. He now understood why dying was for many centuries was a synonym for the completion of the male sexual act (And so live ever – or else swoon to death). In that moment, but not before, it was all right to die.

“The completion of the male sexual act?” That is the zenith of Amis’s powers? That was the least clunky phrase he could use to describe ejaculation? But it is clear he’s not looking to be concise; he is looking to distance himself from the penis. Women’s genitalia is granted lavish and florid attention, but the penis is referred to only in awkward metaphor. It is a “question mark that sometimes [becomes] an exclamation point.” Describing the penis with the same detail as the vagina would take our minds off of the female body, which we must be as willing and eager to plunder as Amis. These books aren’t just passive voyeurism; the author is quite sure you are as captivated and enthralled by his sexual powers as he is. These books always remind me of Christian Bale in “American Psycho,” rutting fiercely and eyehumping himself in the mirror. It makes you want to get involved, to tell Amis, “hey, guy, do you want to get a room to yourself and work all this out? Do I really need to be here for this?” Which is always how I feel when I read these books, because they are all the same book. The exact same.

Even I am not immune to the trend. You see, I’ve written a Fond Memories of Vagina of my own. I don’t have a lot of experience having sex with women, but I do know tech support. That’s all sex is, right? Fluid mechanics, carnal physics, the movement of hot bodies through sexy space. In closing, I give you a sex scene from my erectnological thriller, The Webmaster:

He inserted his male attachment into the female adapter, and watched his progress bar creep across the screen. The green line’s smooth rationality was undercut by the capricious time estimates that were careening wildly across the spectrum of likely endpoints. Five hours. Three minutes. Twelve minutes. A day. He thought of organized sports, for some reason.

Then, at last, the apex! The timer was counting down reliably from thirty seconds, the bar was filled with vigor. He hastened to his appointed destination, only to be distracted by a notification window (ERROR 739: FEMALE ORGASM NOT FOUND.) He felt his baud rate begin to slip. In a panic, he closed the window and pushed it from his mind. And then there it was: le petit écran bleu de la mort. He defragmented into a million bits of solitary pleasure.


  1. GarlandGrey wrote:

    @Tan There is a place for everyone at Tiger Beatdown. There many not be a place for every comment everyone makes, which essentially means some people just shouldn’t comment, but I don’t think you are one of those people. Please take this advice in the spirit it was given: as someone who, just a few months ago, was exactly where you are. I have always been a feminist, but I still didn’t know how to join the conversation productively. I’d read a post where a woman SEEMED to be saying that all people with penises were violent, I’d look down at my own decidely non-violent penis, and I’d get on them internets! I’d mansplain to these ladies that I, as a highly-evolved gay man and as a pretty great guy, had never done anything to hurt women.

    Tan, have you ever spent time on the metaphor “hit me like a ton of bricks?” That’s vertical, clearly it is falling on you (unless someone has found a way to shoot a mountain of bricks directly AT a person, because that there is some Wile E Coyote technology.) Each brick hurts, individually, but sometimes 3 come at once and at this point you are just “WHY DID I STAND ON THE BIG X?” Because that is what that comment thread felt like. And I was DIGGING, man, believe me, backtracking, trying to derail (Well, if you won’t teach me what I’m doing wrong…?) and finally just getting myself banned.

    It was not about me. But I was making it about me. I was skipping in to tell them, “No worries ladies, some dudes aren’t like that” to which they rightly replied “-the fuck you say.” and told me all the ways I was not being part of the solution.

    But I have gotten much better. Here are the involuable, must have rules for commenting on social justice boards. Brace yourself, I am going to be THOROUGH.

    1. Don’t ever act like you are telling anyone something about a group they belong to that they don’t know. Every single one of us share a gender, sexuality, race, and religion with assholes. I am not obliged to FIX anything in my own sexuality so you can take me seriously on the internet.

    2. Don’t tell anyone about the experience of being privileged, because it is literally the air they breath. I will never know as much about being gay as I do about being straight.

    3. Don’t tell us what is productive and what isn’t. We don’t even like hearing that from each other. We are trying to establish a complex network of social contacts, while working within a area of study that is almost completely male-dominated (criticism), and keep ourselves afloat amid unsatisfying jobs and complex personal relationships. Sometime we just need to make a pinata out of someone and go to town. Sometimes we will discuss very serious things. Last week every single Beatdown contributor turned in stories that were about painful or problematic issues; C.L.’s post made me so mad I went into the garage and screamed.

    4. Look up a list of argument derails, one with examples, and then don’t ever do ANY of that shit.

    5. Listen. Feminism, for men, is about listening. Being an ally of any sort is about listening. If it isn’t about you, don’t make it about you. Men, as a collective, don’t need anymore defense. They don’t need you as their critical tailback, making sure Feminism is FAIR to them. They are quite monolithic, these men. The very thought of them terrifies me.

    I don’t want this to be a pile-on, where you feel exiled from the Beatdown, wandering the internet in search of a voice. I suspect once you have internalized 1-5, we’ll actually kind of like you. DNA point! Amniotic fluid! Hot sauce! I like your style of writing, even if I didn’t agree with anything you said. Thank you for the compliments you made to may writing, I apologize for not answering any of the criticism directly. I think the others have done that quite well.

    Thank you for reading the Beatdown.

    Please continue.

    Garland Grey

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  2. TAN wrote:

    ” I apologize for not answering any of the criticism directly. I think the others have done that quite well.”

    ha. wow. I’m glad for your experiences and rules-learning, Garland!

    a few months ago i was writing/editing a book (still am, almost done!) that deals in a large way with reconciling white male privilege. so i’m glad you like my writing style, maybe you’ll review it! it’s non-fiction, so no FMOV for you to fill the pinata up with, but that’s neither here nor there when what i actually say matters so very little. in any case i have a female editor slapping me on the hand whenever I break her rules (garland, dude (can i call you that?), her list is like a book)

    jeesh. obviously i regret knocking your putting of the man in his place. in my remedial egotism, i overlooked that achievement. the main thing lost, amongst so much, is that my point was intended to be small and just part of the crowd. turns out it was the lone voice of dissent, and here we are.

    anyways, just came back to note that I wrote a post on my experience here, and mentioned echo-chamber blogger communities, and the writer/blogger role in moderating that. i did that before seeing sady’s comment, so I wanted to make note, for her, that I appreciate her stepping in.

    you guys (whoops!) are doing a good thing here, keep it up!

    no, seriously. i feel i’ve been goaded into a bit of an immature tone, and if that’s how you deal i’ll respond in kind. but the ladybusiness is very important. and i thanks you for your fervent and single-minded dedication to its cause.

    have a good weekend!

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  3. bxley wrote:

    @tan, and like Erin, yeah, that was a pile-on, and thus not cool and I’m sorry. when I tried to figure out what about your disagreement bothered me so much, all I could come up with was a version of The Tone Argument. which is absolutely shitty of me, and I apologize.

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  4. GarlandGrey wrote:

    @Bxley That Alaska y Dinarama recommendation was solid though. That going to be my soundtrack for the next week and a half. And I’m going to look into Elena Garro, just reading her Wikipedia page I am intrigued.

    One thing I thought about when reading the comments was how terrible this novel would be from the point of view of the object of affect. Can we have someone write “Unfond Memories of Being Stalked”?

    To all the people who commented on the jokes: thank you. I liked that one too.

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Beth Turner wrote:

    Right wow, I wandered in late.


    First point: Killer post! I hate “Literature” for all these reasons and more but this was a wonderful way of making me laugh about it!

    Second Point: The Tan Pile-on. That has to be the politest (on all sides!) pile on I’ve ever seen on the interwebs! I gotta say a congrats to Sady and others and especially Tan for keeping it pretty civil on other areas of the interwebs it would have already devolved to “You’re Stupid!” and “Oh yeah well so is your FACE!” so I’m impressed!

    Also as someone who tends to get into interwebs worked up moments I give a little advice to all (but mostly Tan):

    No one likes to be told (or think they’re being told) that they’re wrong to be angry/cross/happy/smug about something. They’re always going to react badly. So my general approach to internet discussion is if I’m feeling cross about a post is to go and get a cup of tea (I live in England!) and watch some trashy television and come back to it much later and repeat the mantra “It’s just the internet.”

    *words from a former flouncer of forums*

    But seriously well down TBH, and Sady! And Tan!

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  6. Nancy wrote:

    Also known as “New Yorker fiction”

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  7. nico wrote:

    Amazing post, thanks for writing it – and double thanks for making it so funny!

    Saturday, July 3, 2010 at 1:37 am | Permalink
  8. JMBC wrote:

    Thanks for the review Garland Grey, I almost purchased that Amis book this afternoon, having never read any Amis. Dodged a bullet that time!

    The only Updike book I’ve read which actually contains three dimensional women was The Witches of Eastwick – which was a hoot, except of course the women were all competing for access to the same middle-aged schwanz – but they kill him in the end, which made the book somewhat satisfying.

    I’d be interested to know what tiger beatdown writers and commenters think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and the other 2 novels in that series. I’ve read so many reviews touting these books as wonderful liberating, feminist (?!) novels, but I’m thinking they should be in a sub-classification of the same genre as the Amis and Updike, “Fond Memories of Vagina which has known extreme sexual violence and therefore is grateful that I don’t beat/rape/torture her.”

    Greatly enjoyed your parody – such talent!

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 3:07 am | Permalink
  9. Erin wrote:


    I am currently reading the first book of the series. I mostly like it, but the part where he goes into her apartment and is looking at, messing with all her stuff and cleaning her kitchen is weird. It was completely out of character for her to be ok with it and it reminded me of Sady’s Rand parody when B Michael violated her kitchen space! I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’m actually done with the book, but by then no one will be checking this thread anymore.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink